I saw Les Misérables well before its release and it has been difficult keeping quiet. There has been so much buzz about this movie. Everyone wants to know how the cast and crew pulled off a remake of the longest running show on Broadway in our history. I’ve heard various reactions since the screening. I know people who loved it and I actually know people who hated it. I know there are members of the Broadway community who are fuming that the likes of Anne Hathaway won the role of Fantine and I’m curious to hear their opinions after they see the film. From what I’ve seen on social media, they clearly don’t think she was cast appropriately.
But this is film. Big budgets prevail and films are made for public consumption.
I was also curious how the show would translate to film. Like most people, I was a fan of the show 25 years ago. But in my eyes, this film version is a faithful adaptation. The music is captivating and the story is powerful. It will never go out of date – it has action, history and heart. Also, in my opinion, the timing of this film could not be better. Victor Hugo’s story is about humanity and it is timeless. The film has come at a time when there is a lot of pain and suffering in this world, and audiences need one to not only remind them that there are better days ahead but also that we can collectively rise up to help a bad situation. There’s the conflict in the Middle East, starving people in Darfur, our own situation in New York/New Jersey post-hurricane where our own people are suffering. As the film portrays the French Revolution and people rising up, it sends a message to our own generation that we can help each other.
First, let’s talk about the team who made the film. Tom Hooper, Oscar winner for “King’s Speech”; Cameron MacKintosh, a producer who shepherded it onto the stage in 1978; composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and an experienced producing team, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Tim Bevan all of Working Title Films where they make legendary English films like “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jone’s Diary”. The creative team tried to keep the script as faithful to the play as they could and they worked with original cast and crew members to keep the story and music respectful to the classic. Tom Hooper read Victor Hugo’s novel before he started work on the film and his passion shows through every image. It is his greatest fear that the public think otherwise.
Now let’s talk about the cast. Hugh Jackman is a triumph as Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway sings her heart out with “I Dream a Dream” after becoming a prostitute out of desperation to save her daughter, and Samantha Barks is unbelievable as Eponine with her rendition of “On My Own”. Russell Crowe is a divine Javert. I never knew that he started his career in music at the age of 12 and can REALLY sing. Who knew?! And the many supporting players, especially Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried, are all wonderful, particularly Redmayne as Marius who is by Valjean’s side when he dies and is joined by the ghost of Fantine.
And what a process they went through to make this film, from the start to the finish. Let’s talk about that.
At a press conference that I attended the day after the screening, Hooper said that he conducted three-hour auditions for every single actor. He shot with three cameras and went for close-ups to achieve minimalism. Working with actors like Anne Hathaway made it easier because she can tell a brilliant narrative with her face. Each actor acted and sang his/her heart out - “there is stillness and simplicity in moments of song.”
Hooper, along with the much of the show’s original team, tried to make a more intense experience than the one on stage without diverging from the DNA of the show. All the actors left their vocal vanities at the door. Fellner said that making a musical on screen was very, very hard. Everyone was surprisingly learning on the spot, and that included the filmmakers and the cast. He believes that created a community on the film, a sense of bonding. Every actor wanted to possess the material; they all came at their role with a sense of ownership and belonging, and extreme passion. You will feel it oozing out of each character when watching the film, no doubt.
Who can forget the Academy Awards a few years ago when we all heard Anne Hathaway sing for the first time, when Hugh Jackman joined her? Tom Hooper wondered if they were auditioning for the role, but be found his stars. Jackman and Hathaway were two people who could act comfortably through song. While preparing for their roles, Jackman went on to do his one-man show in NYC; Anne spent her time practicing her crying and singing at the same time. The film is all live – all of it. It was raw, real emotion – Hooper had them singing in the rain, crawling through sewers, whatever it took to draw out the emotion required to capture the moments.
Hathaway is a sure thing for the Oscar this year. There’s no way she will not take the Best Supporting Actress statue home. She brings such depth, such drama, such realism to her role as Fantine. I’ve never seen her act quite like this – her character suffers so much pain, all because she wants to provide for her daughter and can’t figure out how to. Hathaway really got inside Fantine. During the Q&A, she said, “There was no way I could relate to my character. I have a relatively happy, successful life…and no children. I tried to get inside this world by watching clips about sexual slavery. Fantine lives in NYC. She’s just a block away. This isn’t an invention. It’s me honoring the pain in the world. I hope we see it end.”
And then there’s Hugh Jackman. He’ll be nominated for Best Actor and I hope he wins. From the very first moment we set our eyes on him, we were drawn to his every word and vocal. Hooper said there was no one else for the role; he knew it from the very beginning. Jackman said that there were nine weeks of rehearsals and he was grateful the studio spent so much money on that time. He prepared for his role over the course of 9 months before filming began and lost his weight slowly whereas “Annie lost her weight in 14 days.” The two of them have an obvious rapport that extends outside acting as they are two similar performances, both loving music and song.
My other stand-outs in the film are Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Just when you think you can’t cry any harder and the devastation can’t get more severe, they come into the film playing the evil couple who constantly tries to take Cosette from Valjean. Their rendition of “Master in the House” is fantastic, and I couldn’t help but laugh at everything they sang.
Their daughter, Eponine, is played by Samantha Barks, who was plucked off the stages in London to star in her first feature film. She plays a girl with a broken heart, and sings “On My Own” in the pouring rain, and her character dies fighting for him. She is a break-out star and really steals her scenes. She is a unique voice and I hope to see her often in the future.What’s great about the film is that not only does it have drama, music and this great cast, but it’s a piece of history on celluloid. And not just any history. It’s the French Revolution, and through song and action; the story is riveting and it pulls you in to learn about a piece of history you may not have known about otherwise. Here’s the trailer:
So the question everyone is asking is will Broadway fans be disappointed? I can’t say that they will. It’s all the same music – they only created one new song. You have the the social novel shining through the script, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score that will leave you enchanted for days after you see the film and a slate of stars from the London stage version. Colm Wilkinson played the original Jean Valjean in the 1985 London and 1987 Broadway productions; Frances Ruffelle who originated the role as Eponine; and Michael Jibson, Daniel Evans, Katy Secombe, Killian Donnelly, Fra Fee, Caroline Sheen, Kate Fleetwood, Hannah Waddingham and Adrian Scarborough.
So, get thee to the theater and see Les Misérables. Trust me on this one.
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Disclosure: I was invited as a guest of Universal Films but all opinions expressed are my own. This is the first of several articles that I’ll be featuring on the film and the Q & A. The giveaway is sponsored by Universal Pictures.